China and the US seem to be on a collision course in the Pacific. Beijing is significantly bolstering its navy, and Washington is shifting its military focus to the Asia-Pacific Region. Many fear it could alter the balance of power in a region rich in oil and crucial for global trade.
The best view of China's new flagship, which inspires fear in its enemies, could recently be had from a window on the fourth floor of an IKEA store in Dalian, a port city in northeastern China. Here, someone had scratched out a viewing hole in the opaque film masking the window, providing a view of the pier across the way -- and of the Varyag.
This ship, whose keel was originally built by the Soviets, is now being put into service by the China's People's Liberation Army Navy. Shipyard employees spent years working on the colossal ship, drilling and welding. Then the Varyag disappeared a total of 10 times for sea trials, leaving geostrategists and naval experts from Tokyo to Washington endlessly speculating about where the ship might be at any given moment and with what kinds of weapons and airplanes China would decide to outfit it.
Since late August, the ship has once again been docked in Dalian. On the morning of September 2, observers noticed a team of painters at work and, by the afternoon of the next day, the result of their work could be seen: an enormous number "16" emblazoned on the gray hull of the ship. This, it seems, will be the identification number of the first aircraft carrier put into service by China's naval forces, a number said to have been chosen in honor of Admiral Liu Huaqing, father of the modern Chinese navy, who was born in 1916.
One day later, on Tuesday of last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a visit to Beijing. This was the third stop on Clinton's trip, which began in the Cook Islands, in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, and would then take her to Indonesia, China, East Timor and Brunei along the way to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vladivostok, Russia. Clinton represents a government that is paying particular attention to the actions of the Chinese navy. One of the main reasons for Clinton's trip was to remind the US' allies in the region that America is the hegemonic force in the West Pacific -- and intends to remain so.
Right at the start of her trip, in the Cook Islands, Clinton met with representatives from allies, including Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the Philippines, as well as ones from Vietnam, America's former enemy. "The Pacific is big enough for all of us," Clinton told them. However, some have reasons to doubt that statement because they know the US and its allies have rivals in the region, as well: North Korea and China.
North Korea, under the command of a dictator not yet 30 years old, may appear to be the more dangerous opponent. But China is the weightier one by far, challenging the US not only in industry, trade and outer space, but also in the arena where the world's major powers have played out their conflicts since as long ago as the 16th century: at sea.
Here in the West Pacific, tensions have been rising for months between China and America's partners. Beijing is in a dispute with Manila over the Scarborough Shoal, an uninhabited rocky atoll, most of which is only above sea level at low tide. This May, Washington quietly negotiated a compromise in which ships from both China and the Philippines would withdraw from the region. Since then, however, the Chinese navy has blocked off the lagoon and its excellent fishing waters and once again sent ships to patrol the area.
At the same time, China is at odds with Japan over another uninhabited island group -- known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese -- located near a key shipping lane between Taiwan and Okinawa. In August, activists from Hong Kong hoisted a Chinese flag on one of the islands, triggering a wave of patriotic enthusiasm on the mainland.
Tension over these islands flared up once again this week after it was announced Tuesday that the government in Tokyo had purchased the islands from a Japanese family. On Friday, six Chinese maritime patrol vessels reportedly entered into Japanese-controlled waters around the islands and remained there for two hours despite warnings from a Japanese vessel. The Associated Press quotes Japan's coast guard as saying the Chinese vessel radioed: "Diaoyu is China's territory. This ship is carrying out lawful operations. We urge you to leave the waters immediately."
China also snubbed its socialist neighbor Vietnam this June by establishing a city on the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Hanoi, as are the Spratly Islands further to the south. At the same time, Beijing began building a military garrison on the Paracel Islands. This latest step makes it clear that China is laying claim to nearly the entire South China Sea, an area of nearly 2 million square kilometers (772,000 square miles) that American strategists refer to as the "cow's tongue" owing to its peculiar shape.
Obama's Pacific 'Pivot'
It is difficult to overstate the economic and military importance of the South China Sea, which connects the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. Over half the annual tonnage of all the world's merchant navies is shipped through adjacent sea routes here, and the region sees a third of the world's maritime traffic. Eighty percent of China's crude oil imports pass through here, and the seafloor holds an estimated 130 billion barrels of crude oil and 9.3 trillion cubic meters (328 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas.
"All of the trends, demographic trends, geopolitical trends, economic trends and military trends, are shifting toward the Pacific. So our strategic challenges in the future will largely emanate out of the Pacific region," said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey when laying out the US' new defense strategy together with President Barack Obama this January.
Obama, who was born in Hawaii and raised in Indonesia, has declared a strategic "pivot" of US military strategy to the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, the Pacific is more important to the US' future than Europe or the NATO territory along the coasts of the Atlantic. Obama traveled to Australia last year to personally announce plans for a new US Marine base there, and his administration has plans for conducting joint maneuvers with Vietnam as well as for setting up ultra-modern equipment in Japan as part of a missile defense system for Asia.
The 7th Fleet, established in 1943 and now stationed in Japan and Guam, is already the US Navy's largest and strongest force, with more than 60 warships and around 40,000 personnel. In the coming years, it will be expanded even further so that, by 2020, some 60 percent of all American warships will be stationed in the Pacific -- more than in the Atlantic and also more than in the Persian Gulf, which has been considered the US Navy's main focus in recent decades.
One of the primary reasons for this fundamental shift on the part of Obama's administration is China's build-up of its military forces, especially its navy. A congressional study published on August 10 suggests that the United States considers the modernization of China's navy an aggressive act. According to the study, Beijing is by no means simply trying to protect its trade routes and its citizens abroad but, rather, is determined to assert its territorial claims, push back the US' influence in the Pacific and underline its status as a global military power.
To these ends, the study continues, China has, among other things, developed ballistic anti-ship missiles that are the first capable of striking aircraft carriers that were previously considered more or less unassailable. In military jargon, these missiles are known as "carrier killers." The congressional study goes on to state that China has also launched three nuclear submarines of its own design that are capable of firing nuclear-armed intercontinental missiles, that the country also wants at least two aircraft carriers of its own construction, and that it plans to undertake "reforms and improvements in maintenance and logistics, naval doctrine, personnel quality, education, training and exercises."
Some observers consider a military conflict between China and the US "very unlikely," the study states, in part given the "significant US-Chinese economic linkages and the tremendous damage that such a conflict could cause on both sides." Yet, even in the absence of such a conflict, the balance of military power between the two nations "could nevertheless influence day-to-day choices made by other Pacific countries," including "the political evolution of the Pacific."
"It seems to me the West is simply faint-hearted," says Xu Guangyu, 78, a retired People's Liberation Army general and current senior analyst with the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association. China, he says, wants to "build up a navy that is strong enough to keep an adversary from attacking, strong enough to defend itself and strong enough to strike back."
The ascetic officer, who served in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953 and in the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979, considers his country's military situation fundamentally misunderstood. "We're decades behind in our development," he says. "Even India is 60 years ahead of us."
Reducing Army While Expanding Navy
Over 30 percent of American military personnel serve in the US Navy, Xu claims, compared to only 15 percent for China. But these figures aren't quite accurate: The percentage for the US is actually about 20 percent. Xu also states that the Pentagon has 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, while Beijing only has one, which is diesel-powered and "requires maintenance every couple weeks besides." His statements continue on is the same vein: "China has 17 soldiers for every 10,000 people, while the US has 43. We spend just $14,000 (€11,000) per year per soldier. Do you know how much Germany pays each year for each of its soldiers? $200,000."
China's navy, Xu says, has a great deal of catching up to do. The Varyag will be put into service this year, he adds, but Beijing will need at least six to eight more "proper" aircraft carriers, while the navy's importance within China's forces as a whole needs to be considerably enhanced. Currently, Xu explains, the personnel ratio between China's army and navy is 7 to 1.5, while the desired ratio is 5 to 2.5 -- which would still be more sparing than in the US armed forces.
If the desired ratio were indeed established, China, with its enormous number of troops as a whole, would field the world's largest navy, with nearly 500,000 sailors -- although Xu Guangyu says the country's total number of soldiers will soon be reduced from its current level of 2.3 million to 2 million and, later, to 1.5 million. "Eventually, we also want to spend around $100,000 per soldier," Xu explains. "When it comes to ships and equipment, though, we will continue to rank third, behind the US and Russia."
Regardless of how China's strategic position may change in the coming years, Xu says, the importance of its navy will increase: "We have a couple of conflicts along our land borders, but the greatest dangers for China have always come from the sea." The "Eight-Nation Alliance" that put down the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 and laid waste to Beijing approached from the sea, he points out, as did Japan when it subjugated parts of China in the 1930s and 1940s. "And I have the impression that the Americans aren't going to come out of the skies either," Xu adds.
Seven years ago, when the US military was still mired in Iraq's civil war, American journalist and policy thinker Robert D. Kaplan predicted that the US would eventually turn its attention from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific Region. Now, history has proven Kaplan right as global power relations are developing in just that direction.
President Obama has clearly shifted the US military's strategic focus from CENTCOM, the command center responsible for the Middle East, to PACOM, which is responsible for the Pacific.
Kaplan also described China's desire, as an up-and-coming nation, to secure its sphere of influence beyond its own coasts as "fully legitimate." Zhu Feng, a Chinese security expert at Beijing University, further suggests that America will only "accelerate" the arms race by implementing measures such as the planned missile defense shield.
One country that could give China good advice, a country whose historians are well versed in naval policies and in arms races on the high seas, is Germany. A century ago, Berlin stood where Beijing is now, as an emerging economic power that was admired, envied and feared. At the time, Germany wanted a navy that would broadcast its self-confidence to the world, one that could rival the world's greatest naval force of the era, the British Navy.
That plan almost succeeded. But it didn't end well.